Apr 242012

I once wrote these words in my unfortunate, naive and relative youth (a couple of years ago I mean), in a piece titled “Is Web 2.0 an example of 21st century socialism?”:

Lessig doesn’t think so. More here.

But I do. It’s a semantic question, obviously. For me, socialism means employing the collective to defend the individual. Historically, there are many socialisms where this has simply not been the case. Thus, we disagree.

But a 21st century socialism we choose to remake, in the image of a century we all covet and proclaim ours, can break out from its historical straitjacket – can achieve something entirely different.

Web 2.0, crowdsourcing, consumer-producers … all these concepts sit nicely with the idea of supportive communities which are able to organise themselves. Using open source tools to redefine and remove costs from the equations that large corporations would otherwise burden us with is 21st century socialism at its best.

Let’s have more of it.

And yet today I find myself posting on whether Twitter and Facebook should pay their users for the content they generate.  Clearly something has gone wrong.

We’ve ended up making the most basic of all mistakes: we simply don’t have control over our means of production.  What’s missing from my previous position, what turns my dream into a mirage of a delusion, is the fact that instead of open source tools freely and unconditionally available for everyone to use, we’ve decanted for a branded equivalent which behind it has only the naked instincts of profit and loss.

Decanted is the right word too.  It’s kind of like what’s happened to the growth in bottled water consumption: running water used to be so enough.

Only now it isn’t quite.

Now we need a logo, an image, a network of messages to justify and sustain our continued participation.

Whilst back at Web 2.0, we continue to slave away at our keyboards and mobile phones – punching in data furiously, with the only reward and compensation for our efforts being the approbation of our peers.

It’s not even as if we’re doing it for free – it’s actually far worse than that.

In the process involved we are obliged to give up so much of our personal information in order that we may access these tools, that effectively we end up paying our lords and masters for the right to enter the aforementioned data on their behalf.

As users of Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Facebook we are nothing but foolish data-inputters who actually court our virtual bosses for the honour of broadening their portfolio of assets.

Web 2.0 isn’t 21st century socialism at all.  Web 2.0, as we have allowed it to grow, is 19th century sweat-shop capitalism of the very worst sort.  And what’s so very fascinating about its dynamics is that we’re prepared to cede to its attractions so cheaply.

Quite an achievement, this apparently voluntary enslavement of the working-classes – how to beat Marx and all his assumptions, in fact, in one easy step.

A certain kind of infirmity – even, perhaps, an encroaching technological addiction of the proletariat – which is fashionably and ingeniously destroying our ability to put boundaries on its reach.

Social networks.

Don’t you just love ‘em?

How we’d do anything for our friends.  Even work for absolutely nothing for the grandest web-based corporations – which then, on the back of our toil, receive billions of dollars of hardly earned cash.

Now there’s an unfashionable explanation for our current levels of unemployment: a massively clever transfer of socially networked riches from the most humble in our nation states to the most powerful on our globalised planet – and all via the labour of the former at the hands of the latter and their freemium strategies.

Could be a PhD in there somewhere, you know.

Definitely a PhD’s worth of ideas.

Alternatively, a truism only we at the coalface are still unaware of.

Apr 182012

Ever wondered how those conflicted confusions of politicos with vested interests might already be affecting our democracy?  Whilst Éoin speaks of “sleeper cells” in Clinical Commissioning Groups throughout the NHS, and expresses his unhappiness with great precision, the US has had a rather longer history of such organised pork-barrel politics.  Which does, in fact, give them an advantage in some matters as the Internet’s myriad of tools allows the people in some way to strike back.

This, then, in my opinion anyhow, really does deserve to be imported from the States.  More about it here and reproduced in full below:


I launched Sopatrack in late December, 2011. At the time, SOPA and PIPA were being rushed through Congress without public debate. There was major, one-sided funding for these issues, and it was alarming how much traction that could get.

Sopatrack had a few goals:

  1. Help voters find their local congresspeople on any connected device
  2. Allow voters to contact their members of Congress by phone or social networking site
  3. Show whether a congressperson supported or opposed this issue
  4. Show how much money the congressperson raised both for and against SOPA/PIPA

The site was immediately popular, with lots of press coverage including The Atlantic, Mashable, Lifehacker, and Hacker News. Twitter, Facebook, and Google drove the majority of the traffic, which peaked at over 40,000 unique daily visitors on key days around the issues.

The wider internet community also rose up, and Congress eventually tabled these bills. Great sites like SOPA Opera were developed, and ultimately Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit staged major actions so that their users would understand the issue. The resources of SunlightLabs, MapLight, and OpenSecrets were hugely helpful to developers and voters.

But there was still more data on other bills, and I wondered what Sopatrack would look like if automatically applied to all bills.

And so it is that we get the new Sopatrack:

How does Fundraising Impact Congress?

The new Sopatrack has the same goals as the original, except that it will work across all bills in the 112th Congress with contribution data from MapLight. Since there’s more data across more issues, the site also tracks how often a congressperson votes on the side of the greater contributions. Individual positions on pre-vote issues will not be tracked.

The votes with the money percentage is also applied to each state for all their congresspeople, and to all Congress.

A brilliant use of public data: follow the people who follow the money, analyse how this affects the way they vote – and make the information available to everyone.  With such a simple and manifestly open system as this, we don’t need to ban lobbyists; we don’t need to pass legislation; we don’t need – a priori – the politicians to change anything they’re already doing right now.  All we need to do is harness a kind of consumer value-for-money instinct and give the voters the data they need to decide on their lonesomes who should deserve our approval and who our disapprobation.

And if shame doesn’t change how politics is conducted, datasets such as these will surely have some sort of beneficial impact in other ways with an evermore tech-savvy public.

As I suggested recently in relation to political funding, approaches which pull together disparate but publicly available information – and then disseminate equally publicly this information about how our politicians and their supporters behave – might have more chances of changing cultures than self-administered and half-hearted patches to the weary body politic; patches which, in any case, the politicians will always find a way of working around and undermining.

If the latest memes and buzzwords in social media involve using the Twitter firehose and similar sets of information to analyse the voting public into submission, why not turn the tables on the politicians and their marketers and use the same tools to analyse the latter into acquiring good and democratic behaviours?

In the light of reports such as Éoin’s tonight, it’s high time we considered doing something similar to Sopatrack here in Britain.

Anyone up for it?

That is to say, anyone up for saving our democracy from the people who follow the money instead of our interests?

Jul 162011

Here’s a thought: if we believe in transparency in government – and by extension in business, paid journalism, the Fifth Estate and other areas of important activity in our societies – we need to be able to measure its degree.  Only by benchmarking and comparing with real data to hand can we decide if we are achieving our goal.

I therefore suggest we create a system of tools which allows us to measure the degree of transparency within an organisation, institution, company or quango.  The ultimate measure of transparency I suggest should be thus: let us compare what a person outside the organisation knows about the truth of its functioning with what an ordinary worker inside the organisation is inevitably aware of (via that always judicious combination of official internal communications, the office grapevine and other such methods of information exchange).

And where the ratio is 1:1, we have a perfectly transparent organisation.

We could call this system of tools the “Inside-Person Index” – or IPI.

Now that, don’t you think, would be revolutionary.  The movement towards open data applied to the daily functioning of all organisations.  Then we’d have to compete not on the basis of a cartel of information expensively bought and sold but – rather – on the basis of easily comparable and contrastable data which would provide real-time knowledge about the efficiency of goods and services.

A bit like Amazon and a good search engine currently is for consumers – but, in this case, for all participants in almost any sociocultural intercourse.

What do you think?

Jul 132011

There’s a fascinating background story here to the ups and downs of my favourite office suite, OpenOffice.org - as well as its original and then parallel commercial alternative, StarOffice.  The most telling point amongst many is, for me (and thanks to Stan for reminding me of it), this one.  Whilst this was what most people thought were the reasons behind its creation …

Many commentators assumed that StarOffice was bought as a stick with which to beat Microsoft. StarOffice ran on Linux and Windows and on Sparc workstations, and Office was Microsoft’s primary source of revenue. Giving an office suite away free would undermine the Microsoft hegemony on the desktop, and like Sun’s sponsorship of other open source projects, StarOffice and OpenOffice.org could be seen as part of a longer term strategy to push UNIX and Linux beyond the data centre.

… in reality, it was a cold – and pretty short-term business decision – which tipped the balance in favour of its existing (the bold is mine) …

Simon Phipps, who was Sun’s chief open source officer, gave another explanation. “The number one reason why Sun bought StarDivision in 1999″, he told LUGradio, “was because, at the time, Sun had something approaching forty-two thousand employees. Pretty much every one of them had to have both a Unix workstation and a Windows laptop. And it was cheaper to go buy a company that could make a Solaris and Linux desktop productivity suite than it was to buy forty-two thousand licences from Microsoft.”

So if Microsoft’s marketing antennae had been more attuned to the ways things were going, or if they hadn’t been so inevitably greedy, OpenOffice.org as a project and stick to beat Microsoft with (which is, in a sense, what it became) would never have come about – and the original StarOffice would probably have remained a backwater in modern computing.  As it is, Microsoft’s inability to track the licensing needs of its big customers – especially the tech-savvy ones – would mean that a project which need never have seen the light of day led to millions of downloads and plenty of successful migrations.

What’s more, if you’ve ever used the program, it’s often much better at opening older versions of Microsoft Office documents than Microsoft Office itself.

That, at least, is my experience. 

And, of course, it’s free to download and use.

Jun 062010

This is an interesting development.  (Thanks to Paul for pointing it my way.)

In the response to a pretty innocuous parliamentary question from Tom Watson, new Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude makes a statement which could, on the face of it, be of monumental significance for UK e-government.
The Government believe that departmental websites should be hubs for debate as well as information-where people come together to discuss issues and address challenges – and that this should be achieved efficiently and, whenever possible using open source software. Any future development of websites run by the Cabinet Office will be assessed and reviewed against these criteria.

The comments at the foot of this piece also make useful reading.

There is of course a middle way of sorts.  For those unhappy with such a declaration of principles (not myself, I hasten to add), we can always mandate the use of open standards (examples of open standard file formats here) – even where the software licences themselves are not open source.  But these do have to be real open standards.

In such a way, we can avoid vendor lock-in and our intellectual property will always be ours. 

Want more evidence on how beneficial this can be for society in general?  Read and watch this.